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Although it slides down easily, there’s very little kick to this moonshining picture. Unlike the last time director John Hillcoat combined forces with musician and now-screenwriter Nick Cave to make the dark, brooding Australian Western, The Proposition, their pairing in Lawless results in a film that is fairly lifeless. Set in the waning years of Prohibition in the early 1930s, Lawless is based on the book, The Wettest County in the World, by Matt Bondurant, a descendant of the story’s central figures. The Bondurant brothers – Howard (Clarke), Forrest (Hardy), and Jack (LaBeouf) – make and distribute the best moonshine in Franklin County, Va., an outpost of Appalachia where the hills burn bright with outlawed stills. Forrest is their leader, a hulk who pockets his brass knuckles in his signature cardigan; Howard is their enforcer and a drunk whose screen time is paltry in comparison with his brothers; and Jack is the youngest, but wants to be more of a player than just the team’s driver. Jack receives the lion’s share of the story’s attention, although he seems the least worthy of the notice.
Lawless caters to LaBeouf’s stardom with a focus on young Jack’s schemes to increase his importance within the gang. Even though most of Jack’s ploys backfire and cause the Bondurants more strife, the character faces no consequences, making him seem more like a narrative engine than a real person. The sketchiness of the female characters is even more evident, although to their credit, Chastain and Wasikowska as Forrest and Jack’s love interests, respectively, carve strong impressions nevertheless. As the big-city bootlegger Floyd Banner, Oldman ekes the most from barely more than a few minutes of screen time, cutting decisively through the film’s overall listlessness. But it’s Pearce’s flamboyant performance as the Chicago lawman Charlie Rakes that becomes the film’s most memorable turn. The gloved, bowtie-wearing special agent is a fascinating contradiction: a priggish thug who washes away his nastiness and violence with sweet-smelling bath salts and pomades. The character is such an easy target as a hateful villain that the Bondurants’ illegal activities seem heroic by contrast.
Lawless is abundantly violent, with things like a slit throat and a tar-and-feathering adding more exotic grisliness to an already bloody story. More interesting is the film’s music, helmed by screenwriter Cave and bandmate Warren Ellis. They score and perform the film’s music as the Bootleggers, using unusually modern compositions by the likes of the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, Townes Van Zandt, and Link Wray, backed by twangy bluegrass sounds. Lawless never fully comes together as a whole but it is quite intriguing in spots.